Some upsetting numbers on child abuse are hitting close to home. A new report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services shows Henderson, Knox, and Rock Island counties all have sex abuse rates more than double the state average.
Outside of Cook County, where reports actually declined this year, Illinois had a 6 percent increase in reports of sex abuse. Even worse, 67 of those counties already had higher than average sex abuse rates last year.
So why the increase? The Rock Island Child Abuse Council's executive director, Sue Swisher, can make some educated guesses. For one, Illinois law keeps sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools, playgrounds and childcare centers, and the rule may be having a negative consequence.
"You look at a dense population, there's going to be a lot of schools, a lot of childcare centers and so on. So the tendency, it's been seen across the country, is for perpetrators to kind of move out into more sparsely populated areas," said Swisher.
Tough economic times, too, may be increasing perpetrators' access to children.
"Parents find themselves many times not being able to afford high-quality childcare, so they may be leaving their children with live-in boyfriends, other family members," said Swisher.
DCFS plans to add more abuse investigators to get kids and families help more quickly, and hopes lawmakers will fund that plan in the coming weeks. Swisher, though, says the best prevention starts at home.
"Really from the very earliest ages, sometimes 3 to 4 years old even, to begin to talk about the fact that nobody has a right to touch your private body parts, and if somebody does, to tell," said Swisher.
And the need for education extends beyond children. DCFS says roughly eight out of ten calls on child sexual abuse come from people other than family members, and kids shouldn't have to wait for law enforcement or school employees to get them help.
Most abusers aren't strangers, but someone the child knows. Potential signs of sexual abuse include sudden changes in behavior or personality, depression, anxiety, or withdrawal from family and friends, school problems or self-destructive behavior, acting out sexually or showing sexual knowledge that isn't age appropriate, and an older child, teenager, or adult who seems to want to spend alone time with the child.
The DCFS Child Abuse Hotline is 800-25-ABUSE.